Fiction readers: do you love literary or popular books?

Literary fiction builds empathy

According to an October 2013 article in Scientific American by Julianne Chiaet, researchers at The New School in New York City “found evidence that literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling.”

Participants in the study read excerpts from genre (or popular) fiction, literary fiction, nonfiction or nothing, then took a test that measured their ability to infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions. The difference was significant.

Literary fiction, writes Chiaet, “focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships.” It increases readers’ psychological awareness.

“Although literary fiction tends to be more realistic than popular fiction, the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes,” writes Chiaet. “They support and teach us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves.”

Reading genre fiction (romance, mystery, science fiction, among others) can be fun, but “the characters are internally consistent and predictable, which tends to affirm the reader’s expectations of others.”

Reading literary fiction, on the other hand, requires effort and may feel frustrating by being more ambiguous.

The two novels on my Five Best Books of 2018 list take readers into worlds that will feel new, even strange, to many of us.

Reading literary fiction requires effort and may feel frustrating by being more ambiguous.

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner is set largely in a women’s maximum-security prison in California and tells the stories of various characters, focusing mainly on Romy Hall, who is serving two consecutive life terms for killing a man who threatened her. She is separated from her young son. Kushner presents her characters, including the man who was killed, with complexity and depth. She refrains from judgment or making political points and offers no sentimental ending.

There, There, a first novel by Cheyenne and Arapaho author Tommy Orange, presents an array of Native Americans living in the Oakland, Calif., area. These characters struggle with many challenges, and the book deals with themes of ethnic identity and being “ambiguously nonwhite.”

Films can also teach empathy by presenting other worlds in realistic, complex ways.

For example, Roma (my choice of the best film of 2018) is set in a section of Mexico City in 1970-71 and presents a domestic drama in which the main character is Cleo, a Mixtec woman who keeps the household running. Beautifully shot, the film alludes to themes of colonialism yet refuses to speak for Cleo. It builds our empathy by presenting her life in its complexity.

Another fine film, The Rider (my number two film of 2018), takes viewers into the world of rodeo bronc riders in South Dakota, where one young cowboy is living in poverty while recovering from a near fatal head injury from his fall off a horse. It presents an authentic and moving view of life there.

Encountering such books and films can be challenging and may serve to change us in significant ways. Such change may also serve to help us see those different from us in new ways.


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